The Italian Almanac

human brain

Italian Science - October 3

Italian researchers have discovered the "birthplace" of consciousness, a breakthrough that could eventually help cure a variety of medical conditions. While it has long been accepted that consciousness develops in a certain part of the brain, Marcello Massimini and Giulio Tononi have located its precise point of origin.

In a study to be published in the international weekly Science, the two experts claim that it is "formed" by rapid, mutual communication between the upper, cortical areas of the brain. "We've known for some time that certain areas of the brain are fundamental for generating consciousness, while others are not," explained Massimini, who works at Milan University.

Together with Tononi, an Italian psychiatrist at the American University of Wisconsin-Madison, he embarked on a series of experiments based on Tononi's theory that consciousness is dependent on the brain's ability to integrate information. In practical terms, this means that certain parts of the brain must be able to "talk" to each other.

In a bid to understand what goes on in the brain when people lose consciousness, Tononi and Massimini looked at a reversible form of unconsciousness: sleep "At the start of the night, when we fall into a deep sleep, we and the universe around us 'cease to exist'," explained Massimini. "Yet the paradoxical element is that while our consciousness vanishes, the brain remains alert and very active."

Using a new technique developed in Finland, the pair proved that consciousness is lost during sleep owing to a lack of communication between various different parts of the cerebral cortex.